Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mahler's Ninth (part 3) The Ländler

In my first Mahler post, I wrote at length about the first movement. This will deal mainly with the 2nd movement.

First, a little background. . . .

The third movement (in the case of Mahler's Ninth, the second movement) of a classical (i.e., by Haydn, Mozart, or one of their contemporaries in the late 18th century) string quartet or symphony began traditionally as a minuet, or a dance in 3/4 time, in a moderate dancing tempo. The Minuet is in three parts, with a contrasting 'trio' section (so named, I believe, because the more intimate character of this section often featured up to three solo instruments, as with the clarinet and two horns in the trio of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony) before the return of the minuet.

When Beethoven came along, he transformed the minuet into a scherzo (literally, 'joke'), still in 3/4 time (like "Happy Birthday to You," or "When Irish Eyes are Smiling") but much faster (like Lennon/McCartney's "Norwegian Mood"). The title scherzo is often associated with the faster tempo, but more likely due to the fact that there was so much more humor -- sometimes on the audience, sometimes on the musicians (an inside joke), and on occasion maybe even making fun of the conductor. As with Schubert and Bruckner before him, Mahler had a preference for the Austrian ländler , which is like a minuet, but with a characteristic lilt.

In his Ninth Symphony, Mahler does all of the above (and then some)! But first, a few particulars. . . .

The movement begins harmlessly with violas and bassoons, but soon thereafter, with the entrance of the 2nd violins (who, as you will recall from my first post, were the first to play the melody of the 1st movement) we come to understand the meaning of Mahler's heading: Etwas täppisch und sehr derb, 'somewhat clumsy and very coarse.' Because the 2nd violins do more than upset the apple cart -- they run it over. (Imagine three women who resemble Dick Butkus fighting for the last peach in the produce aisle, and you get the idea.)

The music goes along like this for awhile until the more intimate Trio section. . . but wait a minute! Before going there, Mahler hurls us into an angry waltz, replete with jabs by brasses and kettle drums, followed by a truly uncouth street song played by low brasses, winds and strings.

So. . . after this do we get the Trio section? ? Nope!

Because Mahler throws yet another curve -- the ländler returns, but now in the faster tempo of the angry waltz! (Listen to how hard it is for the horns to keep up!) Finally, after a series of low gas utterances (imagine Paul Bunyan spitting out his food), the more gentle Trio section arrives, bringing appropriate relief to all of the previous shenanigans.

The Mad Waltz returns, and gets wilder and more out of control, more brisk and more hurried (Mahler's words) with each appearance, until the horns finally cry uncle, furiously putting an end to such nonsense, bringing us back to the original tempo. With the last six notes, played by the highest (piccolo) and lowest (contrabassoon) instruments of the orchestra, Mahler leaves us with the musical equivalent of a wink of the eye. That's it for the fun and games in this symphony. Everything you hear from hereon is serious business.


Sarah said...

Saturday's performance was magnificent! The orchestra was superb, especially the strings -- what richness throughout the fourth movement. We were spellbound from start to finish, including our 16-year old daughter. A wonderful follow-on from last season's Beethoven cycle. Thank you for this great gift.

Edward Cumming said...

Thank you, Sarah.

You may be surprised that I took my daughter to hear Mahler's Sixth Symphony when she was but 4 years old. I don't know what came over me, a blind trust, perhaps. . . but she made it to the end. And after the final hammer blow, she filled the silence with her whimpers. It was a moment I will never forget.

Brava to you for bringing your daughter -- she's a lucky girl!